Part 1: Hormones and Weight Gain - Stress (Cortisol)




Can too much stress increase cortisol and lead to weight gain?


The answer is a definite yes!


A lot of people have this idea that all weight gain must come from over eating or under exercising. While food is certainly an important part of the weight gain puzzle, it's not the only contributing factor. In fact, with few exceptions, most people are overweight because they have one or more serious hormone imbalances in their body.


These "fat impacting" hormones regulate energy production, fat tissue growth and even influence your appetite. One such hormone is cortisol and is going to be the first hormone I discuss in a four part series on hormones and weight gain.


Cortisol is the major stress hormone in the body and it is primarily secreted in large amounts during times of stress. 


Most people only think of psychological stress when they hear the term “stress”. When asked what causes stress, you might say things like losing a job, having a fight with your spouse, driving in traffic or getting audited by the IRD. While it’s true that psychological challenges like this are major stressors, what many people don’t realise is that stress is also caused by physiological challenges, such as:


  • insomnia

  • chronic infections

  • inflammation

  • autoimmune disease

  • environmental toxins

  • dieting

  • too much exercise


Even if your levels of psychological stress are pretty low, any of the conditions listed above can provoke a chronic stress reaction in your body.


When stress becomes chronic and prolonged, the hypothalamus is activated and triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Cortisol is normally released in a specific rhythm throughout the day. It should be high in the mornings when you wake up (this is what helps you get out of bed and start your day), and gradually taper off throughout the day (so you feel tired at bedtime and can fall asleep). However when under prolonged stress then cortisol is constantly released into the body.


Constant release of cortisol may increase your risk of developing insulin resistance, raise your blood sugar, alter your appetite, reduce your ability to burn fat and increase the rate at which you store fat. In most people this results in a spectrum of symptoms along with characteristic weight gain in the abdomen or belly. 


Put in simple terms the pattern looks like this:  



High stress = high cortisol = high insulin = elevated blood sugar = weight gain in the belly


Symptoms of Excess Cortisol & Cortisol Dysregulation



The symptoms of excess cortisol vary widely among people but there are several "key" symptoms that most people tend to express. These symptoms include: 


  • Fatigue or low energy

  • Weight gain especially in the belly area

  • Reliance upon caffeine and carbohydrates as energy sources

  • Characte​ristic crash around 2-3pm each day

  • Characteristic "second wind" in the evening (usually around 9-10pm)

  • Difficulty getting up in the morning or increased fatigue first thing in the morning

  • Strong cravings to sugary carbohydrates

  • Difficulty sleeping at night, constant waking up in the middle of the night, difficulty falling asleep

  • Decreased tolerance to stressful situations

  • Changes to mood to include increased symptoms of depression or anxiety

  • Racing mind or thoughts (inability to control your thoughts)

  • Feeling of "burn out" or not enjoying your work or social life


How to Stop Weight Gain from Cortisol
1. Reduce or eliminate stress.
The first and most important step is to remove the source of your stress. Easier said then done I know! However it is important you work on reducing your stress levels. Don't be afraid to not always be the "yes" person and take on too much.
2. Don't over exercise

This part can be confusing for many people. You're taught that in order to lose weight you must exercise, exercise, exercise. The problem with some forms of exercise is that they actually put an increased demand on the body and increase cortisol secretion. 


3.Avoid Calorie Restriction

Caloric restriction, much like over exercising, puts increased stress on the body. When you are overweight or gaining weight it's very tempting to cut your calories and exercise, but this is exactly the wrong thing to do.  Prolonged caloric restriction puts extra strain on your body, causes metabolic damage, increases cortisol and causes changes to thyroid function (further reducing your metabolism). 


4. Use Adrenal Support Supplements

Adrenal supplements have the potential to dramatically improve your results if taken correctly and for a sufficient amount of time. I'm specifically talking about adrenal adaptogens and adrenal glandulars. 

These supplements have many studies showing that they can alter cortisol, but that they can also promote weight loss by increasing muscle mass and by reducing recovery time post work out. 


5. Eat Enough 'Healthy' Carbs

The consumption of sufficient carbohydrates may be necessary for energy production in those suffering from adrenal and cortisol issues. The tendency of most overweight patients is to avoid carbohydrates completely. In reality many patients with cortisol dysregulation actually need more carbohydrates (at least initially).


6. Avoid Caffeine and Stimulants

Caffeine and other stimulants really are a double edged sword. On one hand they can provide you with immediate energy, or at least an immediate sense of perceived energy. On the other hand it comes at a cost as caffeine has been shown to stimulate cortisol release directly.


7.Allow Enough Time

Treating cortisol and adrenal related problems takes time, a lot of it. Most patients will need 6+ months of the treatments listed above for complete resolution. You should, however, notice some improvement in your symptoms almost immediately upon practising these therapies. 

The solution is not a simple over the counter supplement but instead a plan of attack that includes managing these stressors, changing your diet AND taking the right supplements for your body. 


If you want to know about your own cortisol levels, then you can do a 24 hour saliva test that tests your cortisol levels at key times of the day. Flick me a message if you want to know more about it.



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  • Vinka nutrition
Nutritionist Cambridge